Commentary: S'pore & other Asean states could pressure Myanmar's military, but unlikely to do so

Singapore's consistency in its past approach to Myanmar is a good way to gauge its current response.

Kayla Wong | March 02, 2021, 01:18 AM

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Singapore was recently put in the international media spotlight, following the social media campaign by Myanmar activists calling for a boycott of Singapore's brands.

Myanmar activists call for Singapore to help their cause

The city-state is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar -- with as much as 35 per cent of foreign direct investments coming from Singapore.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the democratically-elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a few Singaporean businessmen have publicly announced their plans to cut their business ties with Myanmar, including Lim Kaling, the co-founder of gaming company Razer, and Sam Ong, the CEO of anti-drone company TRD.

And in response to the claim that the Myanmar military has as much as US$5.7 billion (S$7.5 billion) in foreign reserves parked in Singapore's commercial banks, the Monetary Authority of Singapore issued a statement that clarified no "significant funds" were found from any Myanmar firms or individuals.

Myanmar activists' bid to get foreign governments to exert pressure on the junta has had limited success so far.

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, while arguably taking a relatively tougher stance on the issue than other Southeast Asian leaders, along with his Indonesian counterpart, emphasised in Parliament on Feb. 16 that it is critical to separate political and business decisions.

Academics that Mothership spoke to are of the view that while it is possible for the Singapore government to pressure the Myanmar junta to reverse its actions, they are unlikely to do so.

They pointed to Singapore's consistent approach to Myanmar's internal crises thus far, as well as its history of relations with Myanmar's military leaders, as an instructive way to gauge the country's stance with regards to the coup.

Singapore's consistent stance towards Myanmar is instructive

Ian Chong, Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Political Science department, told Mothership that Singapore has "a reputation of being close to the Myanmar military historically".

He pointed to past reports of Singapore's role in helping the Myanmar military establish armament factories, as well as allegations of providing medical treatment to their top leaders.

Terence Lee, Associate Professor at the Political Science department in NUS, also highlighted that Ne Win, the military general who ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 1981, died at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore in 2002.

In addition, Lee pointed out that prior to Myanmar joining Asean in 1997, when it was still considered a "pariah" state by the international community, Singapore was already one of the largest investors in the country. He added that it was difficult for businesses in the private sector to go on in Myanmar without "active connivances" with the military.

In response to criticism that Singapore is not doing enough to condemn the military leaders for their deadly crackdown of protesters in 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with CNN that year that it would go "against human nature" if Singapore denied the top brass medical treatment.

He reportedly said: "I mean, somebody is sick, he wants to come to Singapore, he needs treatment and you’re telling me that I shouldn’t treat him because he’s not a good man? It goes against the Hippocratic Oath of doctors."

Singapore government unlikely to stray from past approach to Myanmar

Therefore, taking into account the historical context, it is unlikely that Singapore would stray from its past approach to Myanmar, even if it did have the means to take further actions against the military.

Chong opined that the Singapore government has "substantial influence" over Myanmar's military generals relative to other Asean states "thanks to its history of cultivating relations with them across administrations".

Therefore, if it wants to, it can suspend business ties with military-linked entities, especially those that may be involved in "the sale, transfer or maintenance of equipment and services for the security services", until there is some "peaceful and stable resolution", he said.

However, Singapore is unlikely to do so.

Explaining the "power but delicate position" the country is in, Chong said:

"Given the fluid situation and a view to maintain commercial and other ties with Myanmar should the junta succeed in consolidating power, it would not be surprising to me if the current administration also faces incentives to maintain relations as they are."

Nevertheless, he said that "empowering these actors in a coup situation cannot be good for Singapore", even if it does so "inadvertently".

Alan Chong, Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), expressed similar views as well, saying that Singapore is loathe to use its economic muscle to force regime change.

Doing so would mean it is following "an American or European style foreign policy", which would be "absolutely disastrous for Singapore", he said.

He further added that Singapore is "very careful in keeping its economic profile politically correct with whoever controls the levers of power", and that as part of its longstanding foreign policy, the country has always steered clear of asking questions about legitimacy.

"We deal with whoever's in charge," he said.

Asean's credibility at stake again

Singapore's inaction is not unique to the country, and is arguably a collective challenge faced by Asean.

The regional grouping, which operates on the basis of "non-interference", has faced criticisms that it is slow to provide a coordinated response to regional challenges, such as when it was unable to jointly condemn the military's deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

Continued perception of its inaction could lead to its credibility taking a hit.

Should matters in Myanmar get worse and Asean fails to provide an adequate response, this could "further undermine confidence in Asean's regional role", Ian Chong opined.

He further remarked that it is not in Asean's interest to appear to accept the coup as fait accompli either as this could signal to others that within member states, "any external cost of a power grab is minimal or even negligible".

Ian Chong also said that for Asean to restore confidence, it could take "an active mediating role" in Myanmar, and include some options for safe passage of certain Myanmar leaders out of the country should they accept a negotiated solution.

However, that depends on Asean having the political will to do so, he added.

Asean's role can't be completely discounted

In spite of its perceived shortcomings, Asean's role as an organisation cannot be dismissed completely.

Alan Chong cautioned that it would be "disastrous" if Myanmar is ejected from Asean and the regional grouping breaks up.

This is because ultimately, Asean has produced and kept peace among its member states, he said, adding that they have “learnt to live and let live":

"We cannot judge one another by so-called one particular country's preferred political ideology and sensitivities, because that's a sure way of destroying peace in the neighbourhood."

Nevertheless, Asean can hold sway over individual member states if it wants to.

In a commentary published on CNA, Tan See Seng, Professor of International Relations at RSIS, wrote that it was Asean's engagement effort that contributed to Myanmar's political reforms under then-Prime Minister Thein Sein, which in turn led to improved relations with the United States and Suu Kyi's release from house arrest.

That instance of success suggests that Asean has the ability to wield "collective peer pressure", even when the principles of "consensus and non-intervention" appear to stand in the way, he added.

Former foreign minister George Yeo has also expressed optimism in the efficacy of "peer pressure" within Asean, saying it is "not easy for an Asean member country to take a rigid position when all the other nine countries are in opposition".

An internal problem that the people of Myanmar themselves have to solve

As for the next step the Myanmar people should take, that might be entirely up to them.

Alan Chong opined that the impetus for change must come from within as rather than a regime change imposed by an external force, changes that stem from within the country tend to be more lasting.

"This is an internal problem that the Myanmar people need to solve, especially those who believe that the National League for Democracy (NLD) is the legitimate government of Myanmar," he said.

He added that while he is not saying they should go for "full-scale insurrection", the Myanmar people "have to mobilise" in order to achieve their goal of pushing for political change in their country.

"What's encouraging, in terms of the grassroots mobilisation, is that certain civil servants have sided with the protesters, and this is a sign that they regard the coup as completely illegitimate," he said, adding that "the shooting of protesters might actually be a turning point for a lot of the Myanmar people". He continued:

"It's time for the middle class and the working class to join hands and denounce the legitimacy of the military government, and this can only be done by their own hands; no one outside the country should interfere."

Alan Chong also said protesters should look at how the Philippines "cleaned house" after they have had one of the longest dictatorships ever under former President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled under martial law from 1972 to 1981.

Protesters press on in defiance despite threats of violence

Protesters in Myanmar have continued to stand in defiance against the military even as it deploys lethal force in an attempt to stop the mass demonstrations.

They have rejected the military's offer to hold new elections, and reiterated their call for the military to respect the November election last year, and to release Suu Kyi and other detained NLD leaders.

To many of them, this is perhaps the only time to voice their opposition against the coup, failing which they might potentially lose the only window of opportunity to push the country towards a path of democracy.

Furthermore, having tasted the fruits brought by the civilian government in the past decade, such as greater economic relations with the international community, the Myanmar people are hard-pressed to put up with the coup that might lead to the country's political backsliding to the period before 2010.

Given the sense of importance towards the task at hand, it appears that the political crisis in the country is set to be a prolonged battle of wills between the ordinary citizens and the military government until either one chooses to bend.

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Top image adapted via @Ei Phyu/Twitter